Yiddish immersion, for fun and parnosse
Jesse Cebulash had a leibedike summer. At the same time, the Red Bank High School graduate was developing skills that should serve well in his future career as a teacher of Eastern European history.
Cebulash, 23, spent seven weeks at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass., as one of 15 students, all under the age of 26, immersed in a program focused on Yiddish language and culture. He was the only member of the group from New Jersey.
“Many of the Eastern European documents I will need to access are in Yiddish, so what I’ve learned here will be crucial to my work,” said Cebulash, originally from Monmouth Beach and a member of Monmouth Reform Temple in Tinton Falls.
Together with students from eight other states, Canada, and Egypt — about a third of whom were not Jewish — Cebulash participated in the tuition-free Steiner Summer Yiddish Program, an intensive course for college and graduate students that is now in its fourth decade.
Students learn in two tracks — beginner and intermediate. Days began with three hours of formal language instruction. “My teacher, Asya Schulman, was excellent,” said Cebulash, whose attendance was sponsored by The Ira J. Roschelle MD Family Foundation, located in West Orange. Schulman directs the Yiddish Language Institute at the center.
Afternoons were devoted to Yiddish culture, including films, workshops in Yiddish singing and dance, lectures by visiting professors, and concerts. An annual music festival, Yidstock: The Festival of New Yiddish Music, was a highlight, he said.
On a four-day field trip to New York City they toured the Lower East Side and Yiddish-speaking neighborhoods in Brooklyn, and attended shows at KulturFest NYC, the cultural festival put on this summer by National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene.
Cebulash entered the program with a rudimentary knowledge of Yiddish, thanks to family background and contact with a Yiddish-speaking faculty adviser during his undergraduate years at the University of Virginia. He also speaks Russian, which was one of his two college majors (the other being Eastern European history), and German, which he studied while working for a year as a substitute teacher in Charlottesville, Va.
This fall, he will enter graduate school at the University of Maryland in College Park.
“I had a wonderful time at the Steiner program, and I certainly learned a lot of Yiddish,” said Cebulash. “I would enthusiastically recommend it to anyone interested in either the language or the culture.”
At the same time, he remained pessimistic that Yiddish would ever again become a dominant spoken language — except among certain groups of Orthodox Jews. “It would be very difficult to bring it back to what it was in Eastern Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries,” he said.